Monday 27 January 2020

When being good at your job is not enough to gain approval

Women have to go the extra mile, over and above their professional careers, to win popular acclaim, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

NUMBER ONE: Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie is ‘the most admired woman in the world’
NUMBER ONE: Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie is ‘the most admired woman in the world’

Eilis O'Hanlon

Shelley said that poets are the "unacknowledged legislators of the world". Sadly, nobody cares about poetry these days. Now the role of setting the moral and civic tone for society has passed to celebrities.

That much is glaringly evident from a new survey by YouGov. For reasons best known to itself, the polling organisation asked people in 35 different countries (though not, strangely enough, Ireland) to name, without prompting from the questioner, men and women that they admired. Any person who was mentioned by respondents in four or more countries was then added to the list, to see who came out on top.

The survey found that the most admired woman in the entire world is Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, who took the top post for the second year running, followed by Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.

Shelley would be turning in his grave, if he had one. The poet was, in fact, cremated, sparing him that posthumous indignity at least.

Of course, Jolie is not admired the world over just for her film roles, which have ranged from Oscar-winning (Girl, Interrupted) to eye-shreddingly risible (The Tourist, anyone?). Instead it is her ongoing role as a humanitarian and activist which generally impresses respondents to polls such as these.

She has been involved in various campaigns with the UN on and off for two decades now, centred mainly on women and children's rights and the plight of refugees, and travelled on dozens of field missions to places afflicted by conflict.

Jolie is no fly-by-night. She has put the hours in and is, justly, well respected by fellow advocates. But is it really a coincidence that the most admired women in the world also happen to be the same ones who are generally regarded as the most attractive, including Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot, who has the dubious honour of being number one on lads' website FHM's list of 100 Sexiest Women In The World?

That is not the case for the men. The most admired man in the world, according to the same YouGov survey, is billionaire Bill Gates, whose self-created charitable foundation has distributed billions of dollars in aid to some of the poorest people in the world, while encouraging his fellow business magnates to follow his lead by giving away half their wealth to good causes.

With all due respect to Gates, he is no oil painting. Nor indeed are most of the other men who took the top spots in YouGov's survey, including Chinese president Xi Jinping, Russian president Vladimir Putin, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and current Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. The female list, by contrast, is dominated by very beautiful women whose fame comes mainly from showbusiness, including singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, and actress Emma Watson, who played Hermione in the Harry Potter films.

There are other reasons for their appearance on this list apart from their fame. Watson's vocal support for feminist causes has won many admirers; Chopra works for Unicef as a goodwill ambassador as well as being an activist for gender equality and environmentalism.

Taylor Swift, while she doesn't make a habit of issuing political pronouncements, which is a welcome change from most of her slogan-dropping contemporaries, was also widely praised last year for going to court to give evidence against a DJ who had inappropriately touched her during a photo-shoot and then claimed it was unfair when, diddums, he was fired from his job.

They are all formidable women, no doubt about it, but they're still admired not so much for their successful professional careers, but because of the stances they take alongside them. That's not the case with the men either. What's noticeable is that they tend to be older, including US financier Warren Buffett and the Dalai Lama, and not noticeably glamorous in appearance. They are admired for what they've achieved in their respective fields.

The same goes for the late physicist Stephen Hawking, billionaire inventor Elon Musk, Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma, and actor Jackie Chan. Some of the world's most admired men might also happen to be handsome, such as footballers David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who all make appearances in the top 20, but they'd be equally admired if they were pig ugly. Female celebrities should be so lucky. Instead they are required to be alluring as well as politically virtuous.

This might seem like the very definition of a First World Problem, but these two demands on women - first, that they be hot, and, second, that they be righteously honourable in their opinions - do reinforce some of the oldest stereotypes that women have to struggle against.

The second of these may even be the most damaging, painting men as creatures of action, while women's role is to be caring and compassionate.

Evolutionary psychologists - or spoofers, as they should be more accurately called - would say this goes back to prehistoric times, when men headed out to hunt and women stayed at home, keeping the fires lit and caring for babies and other vulnerable members of society, a role which definitely still persists if one thinks of the percentages working in nursing or social care, still professions overwhelmingly dominated by women.

These categories are stubbornly hard to shake off, imposing expectations on women that they must be good in order to be admired. Even maternal, in a way, because the traits which are considered commendable in women are invariably soft, nurturing ones.

There are some formidable women on YouGov's list of the world's most admired women, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, former US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and UK prime minister Theresa May, none of them shrinking violets, though it's interesting that they, too, feel the need to show their emotions in ways that their male rivals are not expected to do; but at their toughest, they stand out as exceptions to the rule.

The "woke generation" might think they're hugely progressive in their attitudes, but their determination to be painfully right-on only adds to the expectations placed on women to shoulder responsibility for caring about everybody else.

Women's path to being praised is to make a song and dance about gender equality or children's rights. They're never admired just for kicking a football or making lots of money, and the real tragedy is that it's often other women who demand this parade of virtue from them, rather than just letting them be themselves and not giving a hoot about anyone else's opinion - because that's what men do all the time and it seems to work out just fine for them.

Sunday Independent

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